Sunday, June 23, 2024

The first volume of Conn Iggulden's Nero trilogy dramatizes the survival instinct and bold ambition of his mother, Agrippina

After an excursion to ancient Greece, most recently in Empire (2023), Iggulden circles back to Rome, the setting for his original Emperor series, as he begins a new trilogy about the forces that shaped Emperor Nero’s life.

Nero is still a child when this novel wraps up with the Roman invasion of Britain in 43 CE, so his mother, Empress Agrippina, is the focal point here. Using her considerable wiles and attractiveness, Agrippina conceives a plan for maneuvering her son into the position of imperial heir and does whatever it takes to succeed.

Spanning the paranoid finale of Tiberius’ reign through Caligula’s madness and the accession of the scholarly Claudius, ruthless in his own way, the story illustrates the era’s political infighting, depravity, and bloody viciousness using full-color imagery and eloquent language that sings with vigor. “Life was violence,” Agrippina comes to believe, “If you survived, you walked away to heal and plot your revenge.” Honor exists, but is rarely rewarded.

Iggulden acknowledges taking some historical liberties to streamline his tale, which zips along with great energy.

Nero was published by Pegasus in the US last month, and I wrote this review for Booklist's historical fiction issue, which came out on May 15. Michael Joseph is the UK publisher for Nero, and that edition has a very similar cover.  This is the third of Iggulden's novels I've reviewed for Booklist, the others being The Gates of Athens and Protector, set in ancient Greece, both of which I enjoyed thoroughly. 

Nero is actually called Lucius in this book; his name at birth was Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. He received his new name following adoption by his stepfather (and great-uncle) Claudius some years later. It will be interesting to compare this new series with Margaret George's duology about Nero as it continues: those books are The Confessions of Young Nero and The Splendor Before the Dark

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